It Seems So Simple ...

Level the playing field, standardization, equality, fairness … no matter how you describe it, the fact that we continually receive differing interpretations of regulations and policy from the FAA would lead us to believe that they have never heard of it. Not so. I have been working closely with the FAA for years and can remember multiple attempts at different levels within the FAA to attempt to “level the playing field.”

My first real FAA experience at the national level occurred a few years back, about 1996. There had been a recent effort to clarify tool calibration policy across the country. Flight Standards had issued an order to all safety inspectors reinforcing the need for tool calibration and explaining what qualified a specific tool or piece of test equipment as needing regular calibration. It seemed so simple.

Bob and his bucket
I had stopped in to see an old friend (we’ll call him Bob) who was working as the chief inspector at a repair station that I had worked with in the past. We were deep into hangar talk, sharing tales of customer experiences and FAA encounters, when Bob told me a story about his FAA safety inspector and his most recent visit to the repair station.

By this time I had met FAA safety inspectors from different district offices all over the country through my past positions and consulting assignments. I knew there were nearly as many different rule interpretations as there were inspectors. But I hadn’t yet seen an example of such complete nonsense as I was about to hear from Bob.

I told you that at this time there was a newfound focus on calibration of tools. When I was talking with Bob, I looked in the corner of his office and I saw a 5-gallon bucket. I thought it was being used for trash or something so I didn’t notice anything odd until he told me what exactly it was for.

He had just finished marking the bucket with pieces of duct tape precisely at the 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-gallon marks. Bob pointed to the bucket as he began to tell me the story.

His particular FAA inspector was a man who I actually respected. He gained my respect through his knowledge of the regulations and the complexities that surround the many different areas of the regulations and how they relate. So at first I found it difficult to believe what Bob had told me. When the inspector had been by the last week to visit and walk through the repair station with Bob, he was on a mission to make sure that all required tools and testing equipment had been calibrated and that the repair station could demonstrate such. Quite a simple task.

The inspector had asked to see a few work orders and was spot checking for tasks that would require a special tool or some piece of test equipment. The first work order he opened had a task that involved performing a compressor wash on the aircraft engines. He asked Bob how the compressor wash had been performed. The corrective action of the work order stated that the compressor wash had been performed in accordance with the appropriate Pratt & Whitney PT6A maintenance manual. Bob pulled out the manual and turned to the procedures for a compressor wash. The procedure calls for compressor wash fluid to be run through the compressor at a specific flow rate, 3 to 5 gallons per minute.

The inspector asked Bob, “How do you know that you are running the fluid through the compressor at the correct rate?” This obviously caught Bob off guard, since compressor washes are such a common process.

The conversation went downhill and the inspector left after telling Bob that according to the new “national policy” he would have to calibrate the 5-gallon bucket and be able to demonstrate a flow rate as required by the maintenance manual. What I was looking at in the corner of Bob’s office wasn’t a nicely decorated trash can — it was a finely tuned piece of test equipment that was required to be recalibrated every 12 months (to the day). I laughed out loud. Bob didn’t think it was as humorous as I did.

I was scheduled to meet with the manager of Flight Standards the following week, so I asked if I could take a few pictures of the bucket. I saw this as a perfect example that showed the new calibration policy needed tweaking. I got my camera and took a few pictures of the fabulous, calibrated bucket. I saw a few scratches on the inside of the bucket and I warned Bob that the bucket was flawed and would need to be replaced in order to accurately measure. We laughed and I went on my way.

Proof of misinterpretation
The next week I met with the manager of Flight Standards. I explained that the policy he had written was being misinterpreted at the district office level. He assured me that the safety inspectors were all well trained and understood how to enforce the regulation and associated policy. I broke out my pictures of the calibrated bucket. He was as amazed as I was that this calibration thing could have been pushed so far. For this particular FAA official, the reality of inconsistent interpretation of policy, regulation, and requirements by various FAA safety inspectors came into focus.

This is only one example of how the misinterpretation of a regulation can result in an unnecessary burden on some certificate holders while having a completely different impact on another. A few other more examples come to mind as well.

Inconsistencies and their effects
As I recall, it was the Dallas FSDO that first stopped all field approvals. While most other FSDO offices continued to look at 337s with supporting approved data, and issue a field approval, the Dallas FSDO was forcing the creation of an STC for the purposes of major alterations. This resulted in an unfair economic advantage for certificate holders and operators whose FAA inspectors were willing to field approve 337s. The advantage comes in cost as well as the maintenance organization’s ability to respond within a reasonable timeframe. Often the business is taken elsewhere when downtime becomes a factor.

Another FAA inconsistency I’ve seen is Part 135 air carrier oversight — specifically, the requirement to add an aircraft to an air carrier certificate. There is a common belief that the maintenance requirements for Part 91 vs. Part 135 are significantly different. However, in the realm that we work in, multi-turbine powered and/or large aircraft, the difference is quite insignificant.

Under Part 91, large and multi-turbine-powered aircraft are maintained to a much different standard than the smaller, piston-powered aircraft that are required to do annual inspections. Part 91.409 (e) defines the inspection standard for the larger more complex aircraft. That standard includes replacement of scheduled life-limited parts, as well as specific inspections designed for the aircraft and its components, as well as survival and emergency equipment.

91.409(e) “… the replacement times for life-limited parts specified in the aircraft specifications, type data sheets, or other documents approved by the Administrator are complied with and the airplane or turbine-powered rotorcraft, including the airframe, engines, propellers, rotors, appliances, survival equipment, and emergency equipment, is inspected in accordance with an inspection program selected under the provisions of paragraph (f) of this section …”

The owner/operator has the latitude to select a method for those inspections, the most common being the inspection program recommended by the manufacturer. These inspection programs are very detailed and include both general and specific inspections, compiled into a published program by the aircraft manufacturer as well as recommended component overhaul time limits. The scope and detail of the maintenance required for Part 91 aircraft is really not much different from Part 135. Under Part 135, the air carrier’s operation specifications dictate how the aircraft will be inspected and maintained. In most cases there is little difference in the inspection requirements, the difference really lies in what rule required the inspection and maintenance program to be followed.

What I have seen, however, is that the FAA tends to use the process of adding a Part 91 aircraft to an air carrier certificate to call into question previous maintenance standards and recording. Since the inspection and maintenance programs are so similar, the process should be very simple; however, the difference in regulatory and FAA policy interpretation causes many problems for the industry. An aircraft can be added to an air carrier certificate very quickly and easily in some regions, but in others it can be very difficult. Again, because the process is under the control of an assigned FAA safety inspector, the standards used rely heavily on the inspector, and his or her relationship with the air carrier. I know it sounds political, because it really is. Many air carriers actually “shop” FSDOs to find the one that will work best for them. That wouldn’t be necessary if the “playing field” was level and there was really no difference between offices.

The only thing left to do
There are several other examples — I’m sure you can think of a few yourself. The FAA knows very well the challenges we are discussing here. It has attempted to make the playing field more level a few times, most recently by using the CSI (Customer Service Initiative) Program which failed miserably due to industry’s fear of retaliation. The CSI program provided a mechanism for industry to push back on a local FAA safety inspector if companies felt the FAA was in the wrong.

I once again fall back to the only proven way to level the playing field. It has to be done by industry. We, as certificated persons and organizations, must know and understand all of the regulations that govern what we do and know and be able to articulate how we comply with those regulations. Then and only then can we push back on ridiculous demands or requests placed on us by the FAA. And we will be able to do so regardless of how many offices we have and where they are.

Joe Hertzler is the CEO and co-founder of Avtrak Inc., provider of the industry’s first Internet-based and compliance-focused maintenance tracking service — Avtrak GlobalNet. Avtrak has earned a solid reputation and Avtrak’s GlobalNet technology is the engine behind Gulfstream and Sikorsky HelotracII. GlobalNet is the system of choice for many operators of more than 140 models.